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What question marks? Washington State’s defense clears up any uncertainty in season opener

Washington State Cougars running back Willie Taylor III (27) and Washington State Cougars linebacker Peyton Pelluer (47) put pressure on Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (18) and force a fumble during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Two things were learned about Will Rodgers III on Saturday in Washington State’s season-opening win against host Wyoming at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.

The sophomore defensive lineman, for one, is a quote machine whose brutal honesty in media environments might be just as refreshing as his tenacity on WSU’s defensive front.

Asked if he thought the Cougars made a statement win by trouncing the Wyoming Cowboys on their home turf in a game bettors thought would be decided by 2½ points, Rodgers III responded, “Yeah. Yeah. And we have a lot more (statement wins) to make. Yes, to answer your question.”

He left reporters with a few more zingers by the time his three-minute postgame interview was over. (Read on).

And the second thing to know about Rodgers III? He’s one of maybe a dozen defensive players who would’ve been hardly identifiable to the average WSU fan last year, but could become a cornerstone of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys’ group by the season’s end.

Due to graduation and one early defection to the NFL, the Cougars are forfeiting plenty of experience at a number of spots on defense this season – and some considerable talent, too – but Saturday’s game indicated they may not feel the effects of those losses quite as much as most anticipated.

Also, it looks like that former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch left WSU with a few parting gifts.

Four players on defense made their first career starts on Saturday. Two of those, free safety Skyler Thomas and Rush linebacker Dominick Silvels, were at the top of the Cougars’ tackle leaderboard, with nine and six, respectively. Another one, nose tackle Taylor Comfort, recorded three tackles and was credited with a half-sack.

Your man on the street probably wouldn’t have been able to provide much of a profile on any of those players prior to Saturday’s game, or their backups, such as Rodgers, a defensive end who had two tackles and a sack, Rush linebacker Willie Taylor III, who had one tackle, one sack and one forced fumble, or defensive tackle Jesus Echeverria, who notched two tackles including a tackle-for-loss.

It was suggested to Rodgers that there were “question marks” at the Rush linebacker spot, where Silvels, who moved to the position midway through camp, and Taylor, who’s coming off his redshirt season, have the challenging task of replacing Frankie Luvu and Dylan Hanser.

If preseason camp solicited questions, the opener provided answers.

“The question marks were only by you guys,” Rodgers said. “We always had faith in those guys. I always knew Willie was going to be a guy, I always knew Dom was going to be a guy.”

Added nickel Hunter Dale: “I have confidence from watching them in practice, you never know how somebody’s going to play in the game until they’re actually in the game. A lot of times when they had sacks I was in coverage and I didn’t even know who had the sacks. But they’re guys that always make plays and I wouldn’t expect less from them.”

To replace a wave of defensive starters is one thing. To do it while simultaneously introducing a new defensive coordinator, a new outside linebackers coach, a new safeties coach and a new cornerbacks coach is another challenge completely.

Communication between the coordinator and his assistants, between coordinator and players, and between assistants and players is probably an underrated component of the game-day routine.

WSU’s newly assembled defensive staff was doing it for the first time Saturday, but Dale didn’t seem to think there were any hiccups.

“It was really good that we were playing away, too. So how he wanted us to play, we got to hear him from the sideline then we would talk on the field so we kind of get the groove of how he wants us to play,” he said. “And the best thing about Coach Claeys, (safeties) Coach (Kendrick) Shavers, they always tell us that we’re the ones playing so if ya’ll want to change something, ya’ll come and tell us and then we’ll talk as coaches and let ya’ll change it. And that’s something that we did today, too, that we felt more comfortable playing a certain play and they let us play to our comfortability.”